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The Roman Senate: Definition, Structure & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Roman Senate was the definitive institution of ancient Rome. In this lesson, we are going to explore how this body was created and how it changed across Roman history.

The Roman Senate

The Romans can be remembered for many things - the Colosseum, gladiators, roads. However, there was one Roman institution whose legacy still lives on today: their government. The Romans developed a republic system of government, in which representatives governed on behalf of the citizens. These elected representatives served in a body called the Roman Senate. For most of Roman history, the Senate ruled Rome and was one of the most powerful political institutions in the world.

The Roman Senate
Roman Senate

The Senate in the Roman Kingdom

When we talk about the Roman Senate, we tend to associate it with the Roman Republic. However, the Senate actually predates the Republic by about 200 years. Around the year 753 BCE, the people who would become the Romans founded a city in the hills along the Tiber River in Italy, and with it a kingdom. At this point, they were largely under the control of the Etruscan kings of Northern Italy. Now, there's a lot we don't know about the Roman Kingdom, but according to tradition, sometime between 753 and 716 BCE the first Roman king, Romulus, founded an advisory council of 100 men. This body would become the Senate.

The original Senate consisted of advisors from the different Roman clans, the major families of Rome. Each clan sent a patriarch, the oldest male member, to represent their interests. The Romans called these people the patres, from the Latin for father, which meant that the advisory council was made solely of elderly men from the leading families. In fact, the word Senate even comes from the Latin word senex, meaning old man. So, the Senate was literally the Roman council of old men.

This was a revolutionary system that set up the basis of a representative system of government. Roman kings were actually formally elected by the leading families and approved by the Senate. For the most part though, the Senate's job was to advise the king. He could choose to accept their advice, or ignore it, because he still had the real political power.

At first, only old men of wealthy families could serve in the Senate
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The Senate in the Roman Republic

In 509 BCE, the people of Rome grew tired of increasingly-oppressive kings, and overthrew the last Roman king, named Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The Romans had become convinced that giving a single person so much power was dangerous, and they decided to never let it happen again. So, they reorganized Rome into a Republic, ruled by the Senate. However, they still needed someone to actually be in charge, and created the office of the consul, the highest position in the government. Rome had two consuls at a time, each of whom were elected for a year each. The consuls had the power to veto each other, keeping a single person from being too powerful. By this point, the Senate had grown from 100 people to 300, increasing the amount of representation the Roman citizens received. By the end of the Republic, it would hold 900 representatives.

However, the Senate was still limited to patricians, and thus was not a democratic republic, but rather an aristocratic republic. Only the heads of these wealthy families could serve. That meant that the government represented the needs of the wealthy, not necessarily the needs of the average, working-class Roman citizens, called the plebeians. Early in the Republic, the plebeians were suffering from unemployment and almost revolted but instead decided to leave Rome altogether. There was one condition that could make them stay. The Senate had to create a council to represent their interests. So, around 494 BCE, the Senate created the Tribunes of the Plebs, a legislative body in which only plebeians could serve and which had veto power over the main Senate.

Over time, the Roman Senate became more and more powerful and also more and more representative of the Roman citizens. As Rome expanded and took over other territories, they also realized that sometimes it was helpful to have just a single person in charge. In times of need, the Senate (without the approval of the Consuls) could appoint a dictator. To us, this word has negative connotations, but to the Romans it was a magistrate with exceptional legal authority. Dictators were expected to voluntarily give up this power once Rome was again stable, and for the most part, they did.

In 46 BCE, the Roman military leader Julius Caesar seized power and proclaimed himself dictator for life. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, resulting in a civil war that ended with the collapse of the Republic and rise of the Roman Empire.

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